Museums are right to keep artefacts on display that point to Britain’s shameful past

No author subscribes to every attitude presented in their work, just as museum curators shouldn’t be held personally accountable for the moral status of exhibitions

Lydia Bunt
Sunday 04 October 2020 10:08
Protesters put pressure on British Museum to return ‘stolen’ items

When you visit a museum, you see what the curator wants you to see. You look at artefacts, read the texts alongside them, come to a conclusion on the past and present meaning of the work. It’s impossible to view and understand objects that are not present at all. The narrative we absorb is wholly formed by what is there in front of us.  

We’d do well to keep this in mind as the British Museum announces its intention to keep controversial objects on display. This comes after a leaked letter sent from culture secretary Oliver Dowden to government-funded museums and galleries. The institutions were warned that, if they removed artefacts from their collections, they risked losing taxpayer support. Accordingly, the museum has put its bust of founder Hans Sloane back on display.

Sloane was a slave owner, reflecting Britain’s prominent involvement in the slave trade at the time the British Museum was founded. This country enslaved African people and funnelled them on to the colonies in the Caribbean, North and South America and other countries. Sloane himself married a wealthy heiress to sugar plantations in Jamaica, and the profits from the farms, worked on by enslaved people, contributed to his ability to collect artefacts.

But we should not see Sloane’s reinstatement as a move to condone slavery – far from it. Crucially, the British Museum has announced its intention to contextualise the statue and other objects with problematic beginnings, in a way that “enables the public to learn about them in their entirety”. Sloane’s bust will be exhibited alongside objects, situating it against a backdrop of the British Empire and slavery. The Museum’s website already reflects this, providing information on its founder’s links with slavery. This kind of contextualisation will help us to understand the role the UK has played in both the slave economy and colonialism, where simply cancelling the object would not. It also has the benefit of acknowledging Sloane’s contribution to the museum world.  

But the focus here isn’t on retaining Eurocentric history – it’s on retaining the Black history intertwined with it. If we throw such objects out with the trash, there’s a risk that we won’t remember the shameful parts of British history in years to come, or the lives of those slaves employed by Sloane and his wife. Cancelling now might mean forgetting forever. 

The diversity lacking from school and university curricula, particularly where the subject of history is concerned, has been at issue for a while. Populating our museums with inoffensive objects alone, though, will only further this one-dimensional, Eurocentric view of the past. This will be particularly concerning for children who learn about the history of our country through trips to institutions like the British Museum. Instead, we should use the potential offensiveness of artefacts to create dialogue. If we retain such objects, but make it known that they emerged from this context of discrimination and injustice, we won’t inadvertently cause more damage in our attempts to mitigate history.  

The same principle applies to literature and television. This summer, we heard about Oxford University students’ vote against compulsory study of any “hateful material” on their reading lists. Though it has good intentions, this attitude misses the point. Unsavoury elements might have been included with ironic intent, or as a way of exploring certain attitudes held by certain people. French author Michel Houellebecq, for example, has been routinely accused of racism and misogyny. But, arguably, Houellebecq incorporates these elements into his work and public persona as a way of highlighting their existence in society – not because he himself subscribes to them. “That is the riddle that Houellebecq deliberately likes to leave unsolved,” as Angelique Chrisafis writes in The Guardian.  

It is reductive to assume that an author subscribes to every attitude presented in their work, just as a museum curator should not be held personally accountable for the moral status of everything that features in their exhibition. And, should the racism be genuine, we will not be able to understand the workings of systemic discrimination in the past or present unless we see them in action.  

This is why the British Museum, and indeed the government, have made the right decision. Retaining artefacts like the bust of Hans Sloane without putting them in their proper context would, of course, be offensive and would invalidate the valuable work done by the Black Lives Matter movement to raise awareness of systemic racism now. But keeping them on with new information is far more preferable to binning them altogether. Contextualise, don’t cancel – this way, we can learn from the mistakes of the past.  

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